”Eight o’clock and all is well!” shouted the burly man twirling a baton after checking his watch as synchronized with the grandfather clock in the window of the clockwork shop. Always on time, those Cyclops things, he knew.
“How come we gotta shout that anyway, sarge?” asked the Werewolf walking with him, carrying their as of yet unlit lantern.
“Why my dear rookie, we must let the folk know all is well!” replied the sergeant, his jowls dancing.
“Wouldn’t it be less trouble to make noise only when something is not well?” asked the Werewolf, her tail making complicated figures in the air as she vented her frustration. Moving at the pace of a fat copper wasn’t the preferred pace for an active young Werewolf. The city was full of smells to explore! Like… like sulphur! Huh. Sulphur?
“You smell that?” she asked.
The sergeant sniffed the air.
“Ah yes, lots of Aspara about these days. Can’t mistake their cooking. Always rice and curry” he said with a nod.
“Not that, I mean…”
“Excuse me?” came a sudden voice, and both police officers started a bit at this new intrusion. Neither had heard any footsteps along the cobblestones. Not even the Werewolf.
The speaker, as it turned out, was a young lady, a girl, really, wearing a very snappy suit, with a raincoat and a top hat over it. She even had a proper walking stick. Curious, on one so small. Rather a comical appearance, had she not popped out of nowhere smelling of sulphur.
“Yes, dearie?” asked the sergeant, always a friend to girls of modest bosom but ample bottom, as this one was.
“Might I trouble you to direct me to the establishment known as Edward’s Tavern?” she asked.
“Ed’s pub?” asked the Werewolf.
“Quite” nodded the girl.
“That-a-way” said the sergeant, twirling his baton appropriately.
“Thank you” said the girl with a bow and walked off. Her feet and cane still made no sound.
“Smelled like sulphur, she did” pointed out the Werewolf.
“Some of the finer ladies use it on their socks as a, ahh, deodorant” said the sergeant.
“That’ll be it then”
There was a brief pause during which the eerie girl disappeared from view.
“No need to pay any attention to her not actually touching the ground as she walks then” added the Werewolf.
“No need to offend folk on their quirks, no” confirmed the sergeant.
“All’s well at 9 as well, then?”
“We’ll make this round right quick then?”
“Quite, rookie. You’re learning, you are”
The policeman and policebeast wasted no time in making their way back to the confines of the barracks and placing such wards above windows and doors as were available to the police force of the city, which was quite a bit more than the average citizen had.
Meanwhile the average citizen was drunk and suggestible, unable to make well thought-out decisions.
Ed’s pub was an establishment well known to the folk who frequented it, and on account of it being located in a suburb with no connection to any of the city’s borders, it was not likely for strangers to wander into it, and of course there was no need for a sign on the outside, as everyone who was welcome there would know where it was without one. Everyone was a regular, first timers were the friends and relatives of regulars, and no trouble from outsiders was had. Rather, trouble from the regulars was the norm. At this particular time of the evening, this trouble made itself apparent in the form of Koos Dijkstra, a perfectly average citizen, who had not paid his debts.
“Can’t have folk thinking we’re a charity, can we?” asked Goblin Thug 1.
“No ma’am” agreed Koos, eyeing up the exits. Windows were barred, and Goblin Thug 3 was at the front door. The backdoor was through the kitchen, so he would need to run around a bit, but…
Goblin Thug 2 leaned on the bar counter next to him and lit her pipe. This wasn’t going to be over any time soon.
“As I hear it, Koos my boy, you’ve been wanted by the Crown” said the Tanuki, as she inspected her well groomed nails.
Koos swallowed. This was true, technically, but he felt he could deny it as he was absolutely innocent of the charges.
“Please, missus, I never did anything wrong!” he pleaded, knowing his squirming turned her on.
“Mmhm, yes, well, this poster says they’ll give, hmm, a third of your debt, it seems the sum is, for your head. Dead or alive. The head, I mean”
The last bit was added to remind him that yes, she could do horrible, unnatural things to him if it pleased her. The idea of having his head serve 40 years in prison while his body did some kind labour for the Tanuki was not a pleasant one.
“Missus, please. I can’t be held responsible for the ship sinking!” he pleaded.
“But ya can be held responsible for putting all that money on a ship to Zipangu. Sounds like a proper gamble to me, that” said Goblin Thug 1.
Goblin Thug 2 blew a ring of some and grinned smugly up at him. Real zinger, her sister made.
“So you say. But who else is there to be held accountable? One cannot help but wonder why YOU were the sole survivor” pointed out the Tanuki.
“Circumstantial!” he protested.
“…and somehow 6000 marks worth of valuables recorded in the cargo manifest were mysteriously never found in the wreckage. Most that was found had been spoiled, of course, but for that much to simply disappear, as if by sorcery or, hm, deceit…”
“I dindu noffin’!” Koos mumbled.
“…and when the insurance inspectors discovered that the goods that were missing had been so highly insured, well, you can just imagine how it might, hm, raise suspicions?”
She finished, and Koos had to lean on the counter rather heavily so as to not drop on his ass. She’d seen right through him.
“She’s implyin’ you did insurance fraud AND sold the stuff, see? Made double profits!” pointed out Goblin Thug 1.
“Triple, actually” corrected the Tanuki. “The insurance had been quite hefty. This means that our dear Mr. Dijkstra would, were he indeed guilty as charged, be in possession of no less than 18,000 marks in cash or goods. A hefty sum. Enough to pay most of his debt, even. What was it? 23,000 marks he owed us? Add to the 18,000 his bounty, and we’d be more than 2000 marks in the green! Sums like these don’t grow in trees, do they?”
“No ma’am, they don’t!” said Goblin Thug 2.
It was in times like these that Koos Dijkstra regretted his actions the most. These were the only times he did, period. He would not learn his lesson if he got out of this one, that was a fact. He licked his lips and tried his luck.
“Say I had the goods” he said.
“If I, say, gave you the goods…” he tried.
“Do go on”
“Could you perhaps see it in your heart to, say, give me until the end of the month to pay the rest?”
This was a desperate plea and he knew it. The end of the month was only a few days away.
The Tanuki grinned.
“That would be only three days, not counting today” said she.
“True, true. Reasonable, isn’t it?” Koos said, smiling in a conciliatory manner.
“And pray tell how you intend to pay the missing part of your debt in that time?”
Koos tapped his nose conspiratorially.
“I have my ways” he said, in a tone he hoped was confident and filled with mystique.
“Tut, tut, tut” the Tanuki smacked her lips and shook her head. “I don’t know why I always give in to you, Mr. Dijkstra. Maybe it’s that rugged charm of yours. But I’m afraid I can’t let this slide as easily as I have in the past. Ladies?”
The Goblin Thugs grabbed Koos’ hands before he had a chance to react, and with their strength easily held him in place while the Tanuki produced a sharp needle. Smiling with a frightening gleam in her eyes she stabbed it into his neck. He felt no pain, only a cold sensation where the needle was. Then it was pulled out, red instead of the steel-grey it had been, and there was no wound.
“Now we will know where you are. Always. Just in case you… get ideas.”
The Tanuki and her Goblin Thugs had ordered some drinks and enjoyed themselves – at his expense, naturally – while he explained where his stash of goods was. He’d been unable to make any money off them as of yet. Then they left, leaving him with the bill and a foreboding feeling.
“That coulda gone worse for you” said old Eddie Sheep-shagger, the proprietor of this fine establishment, and father to a veritable herd of Weresheep.
“Shut your ugly mug and give me something strong” Koos said.
“Can ya pay fer it?” asked one of Eddie’s daughters, who was working cleaning up after the loanshark and her thugs.
“Then get out, bum!”
With the force of three hardworking Weresheep Koos was thrown out of the tavern and into the gutter opposite the frontdoor. He tumbled about in the mud and muck before getting up and shouting something snappy about having had a hat, but the door was already closed.
“Bloody wankers” he said as it began to drip lightly. A rain was all he needed tonight.
Koos Dijkstra was not a bad man. Surely not. He was an entrepreneur with bad luck, a merchant of creative means, a lover of many women but a suitor to none. But he was not a bad man, oh no. Bad men didn’t get in trouble with Tanuki, but worked for them, rather. Good men spent their time avoiding and running from them.
No running from magic, he thought. No means of making that money, either. He needed 5000 marks in three days. If he hadn’t been kicked out of the thieves’ guild a few years back he’d go to them and get in on a heist or something. Always a few of those going on in a city of this size. But oh no, he just HAD to try to be a smartass and rob someone who technically didn’t pay for guild protection. Was it his fault the guild master couldn’t think outside of the box or see the humour in the situation? And now the rain was getting worse! He didn’t even have a place to stay the night!
“Excuse me” said the voice of a woman then, and ever the gentleman, Koos Dijkstra turned to bow towards it. The fact that the speaker was obviously a little girl dressed in what was obviously a man’s suit did nothing to change his polite expression and smooth bow.
“How may I assist, miss?” he asked. The girl was holding up a massive umbrella and looked dry as a bone. He envied her. Even her feet weren’t wet. How was that even possible?
“I’m looking for a place known as Ed’s pub” the girl said.
“Right through that door” said Koos, pointing, and then he stopped in his tracks. Why would a girl like this even be in this neighbourhood, much less headed to a place like Ed’s?
“But whatever is a charming little things like you looking for in such a place?” he asked.
“I’m looking for someone” said the girl.
“Indeed? A relative?” he hazarded a guess.
“Yes, but not mine” she said.
“Oh? Might I inquire who?” he said, wiping the rainwater off his face, a futile effort as it was.
“One Koos Dijkstra” the girl said.
Alarm bells rang in his head. Was this a setup?
“Whatever do you want with him, dear?” he asked.
“I’m a lawyer. I need to bring to his attention a will” she said.
A will? For him? Someone had left him something?
Koos licked his lips and rubbed his chin, trying to make heads or tails of the situation. All this bad stuff, followed by what appeared to be a stroke of good luck?
“Let’s step inside, shall we?” he said and gestured towards the door he only recently had been tossed out of.
“I thank you, sir, but I really mustn’t tarry. Do you know if Mr. Dijktra is in there or not?”
“Why my dear, I am he!”
“Indeed? Then someone inside must be able to vouch for you”
“Of course. I’ve nothing but friends here!”
“Dunno who this bloke is, missie” said one of Eddie’s daughters.
The lawyer turned to face Koos.
“You attempted to deceive me” she said with an emotionless voice.
“I did not! Look here, fluffy, you know damn well who I am! I’ve been here hundreds of times!” Koos shouted.
“Yeah? What’s my name then?” asked the Sheep.
Koos grimaced. Not like he knew. He doubted Eddie had no clue either.
“Lay off, eh? Little lady’s come a long way for ‘im” Eddie pointed out from behind the counter.
“So this is Koos Dijkstra?” the lawyer asked for confirmation again.
“Yes. Yes I am” Koos said impatiently and led her to a table in a corner. The lawyer regarded the establishment very carefully.
“Funny thing, really” Koos said nervously, feeling the silence between them become too awkward. “But this used to be a road we’re on right now. Pub’s built right smack on top of an old crossroad! Used to be willows on the riverbank right there where the stairs are, up above us, but when they dammed up the tributary of the James, it went dry, see, and…”
“Quite fascinating. Sign this” said the lawyer, and somehow there was a piece of paper on the table, with an old-fashioned quill atop it. No ink though.
“What’s this then?” he asked, picking up the paper.
“The last will and testament of… an uncle of yours” the lawyer said.
“An uncle? Didn’t know I had one” Koos said, regarding the document with some suspicion, but mostly with curiosity. He wanted to know what he was getting.
“You don’t. Not anymore. Dead, see. Hence the will” the lawyer explained to him.
“I see, I see. So what do I get?”
“Yes. A house. Just off of Mercantilly Road” the lawyer explained.
Koos whistled. That was an expensive neighbourhood. The lot would be 10,000 marks easily, the furniture and silverware and whatnot could go as far as 20-30,000 more…
“I don’t believe there’s ink…” he said, eager to sign.
“No need. Blood will do” the lawyer said.
“Blood? I need to cut myself?” Koos said in a panic. This was some demonic stuff all of a sudden.
“You ARE bleeding already” the lawyer said, touching her neck, and when Koos touched himself in the same spot, he found that yes; there was indeed a trickle there. Right where that bloody loanshark had stabbed him. He grunted in anger, but dipped the quill in the blood anyway, just to show the damn Tanuki. Make him bleed, will you? He’d use his blood to make a fortune yet!
Soon as he’d signed his name he felt quite happy with himself.
“When can I see my new property?” he asked.
“You do not wish to pay your respects to the departed first?” the lawyer asked, smiling now.
“Oh, there’s a funeral?”
“I’m afraid not. The departed did not depart… quietly. Blown to bits, as a matter of fact”
“Oh. Oh, that’s horrible. Tragic. Truly” Koos said, nodding for emphasis at every word he said.
“Quite. Shall we? There’s a coach outside”
“Oh yes, let’s”
There was indeed a black coach outside, pulled by two black horses, driven by a man in a heavy black cloak and a black hat that quite covered his face in the gloomy rain. Koos and the lawyer stepped inside the coach, and it began to move immediately.
“You may wish to wear these” the lawyer said, handing her raincoat, top hat and cane to him. Without them she was dressed in a sensible black dress, quite appropriate for a woman. Koos was quite certain she’d been wearing a suit and pants but…
“Ah yes, thank you, they’re just my size” he said as he put them on. They were, in fact. How they’d ever fit on her was a mystery to him.
“Now, as for the practical arrangements of the condition…” the lawyer began, and Koos blinked heavily.
“I beg your pardon?” he asked.
“The condition. You must’ve read the contract before signing, surely”
“Oh, I… contract? Wasn’t it a will I read?”
“Among the papers, yes” she nodded.
“Papers? There was only one paper, the one I signed…”
“Indeed?” the lawyer asked with a grin, picking up the briefcase on the floor of the carriage that certainly had not been there a moment ago, and then she produced a number of papers, each of which carried his signature. In blood.
“W-what nonsense is this?” he asked, feeling queasy. Did it smell like sulphur in here?
“Oh, nothing much. It said on the paper you signed, you see, that you didn’t mind if the signature was copied on the rest of the papers, as I didn’t bring them with me” the lawyer said, her pointy, pointy teeth showing as she grinned, and it DEFINITELY smelled of sulphur in here!
Koos read the paper offered to him, carrying his signature in blood, as all the others. It said that to get his inheritance, he would need to remain on the property continuously for no less than 48 hours.
“W-what?” he asked, confused. He’d half expected that he’d sold his soul.
“Exactly what it says” the lawyer nodded, her eyes now a different colour, the whites black and the irises yellow.
“And, and the rest?”
“That you’ve received the will, become the sole benefactor of the deceased, that you’ve read and understood all the terms and conditions, and that you accept the penalty should you fail to fulfil the condition. They all carry your signature in blood, as you agreed to the copying of it” she said. She had horns now.
“And... and the penalty?”
“You ought to know. You signed it”
Koos stared at the Devil in front of him. That blue skin, that swinging tail, that leather corset, gloves and boots all that she wore, with her lady parts all showing… oh dear.
“I need some air…”
“That’s fine, we’re here!”
The carriage came to a stop and Koos jumped out into the rain, falling on his knees and vomiting. If this was Mercantilly, then they’d covered six miles in a few minutes!
“There it is” she said from behind him, and Koos lifted himself up with the cane, looking up.
A high metal fence went around the bottom of the grassy hill, with a massive garden filling the space between the gate and the house. Koos swallowed as he looked at it. Three storeys, with at least four rooms on each side per floor… this wasn’t a house, it was a small mansion! The lot must’ve been worth 60,000!
“I… I can live with this…” he mumbled. A snigger from the Devil followed his comment.
“That is not it. Look yonder!”
He followed with his gaze where her umbrella pointed, and saw an empty lot less than a 10th in size of the other. There was nothing there but a muddy hole in the ground and what appeared to be a few pieces of brick and mortar left over from… oh no.
“I told you he didn’t leave quietly” the Devil said, and took him by the hand as she led him to the lot.
“48 hours. Here”
“I’ll die of pneumonia”
“If you do, you’ll never be cold again, I promise”
Koos licked his lips.
“I can’t back away now, can I?”
“You can, if you’d rather go somewhere warm right now”
“I think I’ll pass”
“Then we’ll see in 48 hours!” she said, slapping him on the back and hopping back inside the coach, which drove off and disappeared quickly enough.
Fifteen paces. It took fifteen paces for Koos to reach the end of the lot along the fence of the neighbouring house. Ten paces along the roadside until he ran into the fence of the next lot. Ten by fifteen. The house on that next lot was bigger than this. On the other side there was a small road and beyond that a park. On the opposite side there was an old wall, from the days of medieval warfare. It was preserved here as a historical piece of the landscape. Beyond all of these there were more houses with impressive yards. All of them had lights in the windows except his only neighbour.
Koos tried to keep moving and looked for anything that he could use to shelter himself from the rain. 48 hours wasn’t long enough to starve. If he really had to, he could drink the rain water, dirty as it was. The cold was the problem. But he wouldn’t die, surely. Not right away, anyway. 48 hours. He could do it.
That would leave him with little more than one whole day to pay off his debt to the Tanuki, if he managed to escape from the Devil. Which would still leave him a wanted criminal.
“Now would be a very good time for a stroke of good fortune” he said out loud. As soon as he finished the sentence, he slipped and fell into the puddle formed in the hole in the middle of the lot.
From rock bottom, the only way is upwards. For Koos Dijkstra, rock bottom was a way even further downwards, if only he could open it up.
Upon falling into the puddle, he had discovered that the hole was deep. Too deep for him to reach both the bottom and the surface at once. Having climbed out Koos placed his boots, socks, coat, hat, cane and shirts on one of the bits of brick and mortar that still stood at waist-height and arranged his raincoat in such a manner over it that the rest of his clothing didn’t get more soaked than it already was. With this, he dove back in the water. He wanted to reach the bottom, if for no other reason, than to see if there might be something down there that he could use. Like a magical orb or something that would spirit away all his problems.
What Koos discovered was rubble. Bits and pieces of the same stuff found elsewhere on the lot, and gravel and muck and such. And a sliver of hope. He was quite certain that underneath all this debris there was a grate, and the sewers. The sewers were good. If only he could get it open, all this water would fall down and then he could use the massive pipes to hole up in. He still would, technically, be on the lot, but he wouldn’t be exposed to the elements. Take that, Devil!
The matter of clearing all that debris was a bit unclear though. What was he to do with no tools? Carry the bits and pieces up from the bottom in his hands? It might take a day just to do that!
Then again, what did it matter? He wasn’t going anywhere, he didn’t have anything else to do, and at least the work would keep him warmer than not working. It’s not like he could get any wetter than he was now.
Koos removed and wrung his pants as dry as he could and hid them under the coat as well. After a bit of searching around the lot he found enough bricks to pile on the ruin he’d chosen previously to get it high enough for the coat to hang over all his clothing. Then he checked his cane.
It was sturdy and well built. Made of some hard wood with metal bracing, it had some neat ornaments engraved into it. It might work as crowbar if he’d need one.
Leaving the cane aside for now, Koos dove back in the dirty water and reached the bottom quickly enough. It was maybe three, three and a half meters deep. At the bottom he rounded up as much as he could hold in his hands and against his stomach and chest, and then kicked up. It was harder than he’d anticipated, getting the stuff out of the pool itself. As soon as he broke the water surface he realized he’d have to somehow lift it all on the side and that it would probably just pour right back in. Then he realized how much heavier the stuff was in the air than in the water.
He got out of the puddle and made some changes on the sloping bank, digging with his bare hands to make it gentler and to make it easier to get the damn debris to stay on it.
Down he went again.
How many times he dove and got back up, he didn’t count. Koos kept doing this labour regardless of getting weary and starting to shiver a bit. Piles and piles of broken bricks began to, well, pile up, and later on he took a break from diving and made a sort of fence out of them around the pool. Maybe it would keep water from, no, maybe it would keep the walls from, no, well, it wasn’t hard work, that’s what mattered. He caught his breath, at least, and kept active.
Koos sneezed loudly.
“You’ve been keeping busy” said the voice of the Devil, and he jumped away from it. Turning around he saw the Devil looking like the human lawyer she had pretended to be, safely under an umbrella held by that big man who had been driving the coach. His face was still somehow hidden.
“What do you want?” Koos snapped.
“I was wondering if you had by now sobered up enough to listen to how it is you came in to being the sole heir of the deceased. I don’t believe you know his name, even” she said happily.
Koos stood rubbing his arms and stomping his feet. He COULD get dressed, but he doubted the clothing hidden under the raincoat had dried up yet. Wearing wet clothes wasn’t much better than being mostly naked, was it?
“I’m listening” he said, pacing around the lot.
“Well you see Mr. Dijkstra, your uncle, or rather, your great-great-great-uncle, was a wizard” she said.
“Ah. That would explain why I didn’t know about him. Don’t get relatives quite so distant as that visiting all that often” he said, his voice filled with loathing. Not that he minded wizards, but he didn’t want to talk to her. Telling a Devil to bugger off wasn’t a smart move, though. She might get it in her head to be mean to him.
“Indeed. Mr. Daniel Smith, commonly known as Danny-Boy, was a wizard who lived in a tower on this very lot. The outward appearance was of a three-storey building, not very big as you can see from the size of the lot, but on account of wizardly business, he had plenty of room inside. Enough room, in fact, to not come out for 146 years”
“That’s a long time” Koos said with a whistle.
“Indeed. He spent only some of this time in what we might call “wizardly” pursuits. By which I mean he was, after turning 30, a wizard for four months” she said, skipping through puddles happily while her companion kept the umbrella atop her head.
“Four months?” asked Koos, before sneezing again.
“Indeed! Then he got bored of it and started using his magic powers to summon Succubi and such to keep himself entertained. He sold his soul to me roughly half a year after becoming a wizard” the Devil said, jumping into the pool in the middle of the lot. She remained afloat over it, and so did her companion.
“What’s your point?” asked Koos.
“Well you can imagine that a man who has sold his soul for pleasure and leisure would at some point come to regret the transaction!” the Devil said, crossing her arms and shaking her head at his foolishness.
“Well obviously he wanted to substitute his soul for another! Being his last living relative, you ended up becoming responsible for his debt, on account of you accepting the will and all” said the Devil.
“Wait, what happened to his soul between dying and me signing the papers?” Koos asked, as he could think of nothing else to say.
“All kinds of fun things. You have to make the most of things when time is limited” the Devil replied innocently.
Koos shuddered from more than the cold now.
“So is that it?” he asked.
“I beg your pardon?”
“The story. Was that it?”
“Hmm, well, not quite. See, there’s some trickiness here. See, you’ve agreed to take on, as the sole heir, all the assets of your deceased uncle Danny-boy, and as such, you’ve agreed to take on his debt, as it was an asset. This will only become official and binding if and when you remain in this lot for 48 hours. At that time your uncle’s soul will be free. Fail to fulfil your part, and I will get both of you” the Devil explained.
“So I’m damned no matter what?” Koos said crestfallen and Slav squatted.
“Quite so. If you feel bitter towards your departed uncle, you could give up and just, hm, take him down with you, perhaps?” the Devil suggested.
Koos looked up at her grin.
“Down with me?”
“Yes. All you need to do is give up. No matter what you do, your soul is as good as mine. You’ve nothing to gain by persevering! Give up; show the old fool he can’t escape!”
The Devil was downright fuming now, her eyes aglow.
Koos shook his head.
“If it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll wait it out” he mumbled. He was in no hurry, that was for certain.
The fuming ended and the Devil looked once more like a normal human. She shrugged.
“If you think being in this miserable lot is so much fun, then by all means, stay! Not like you’ll be able to avoid me, no matter what you do. Ta-ta!”
For a while after the Devil had left, Koos cried. What was the point of it all, indeed? Fucking wizards, man. They would ruin your life. Why not screw him back, then? Danny-boy would end up in the Devil’s clutches with him. That would be some consolation. All he had to do was take that step out of the lot.
But Koos was not one for giving up. He reviewed his options. There was… the option of giving up and going straight to hell. And then there was the option of waiting out the two days and going to hell after that.
Come to think of it, she hadn’t said she’d claim his soul right away. That’s right! Just because his soul became hers, it didn’t mean she’d just reap it out of him, he’d get to keep it until he died! Right? Right?
A flicker of hope, there. So he might as well worry about surviving! Time to get back to work!
He may well have been deceiving himself, but regardless, Koos Dijkstra got back to work on clearing the hypothetical grate.
Eventually the rain stopped. The piles of rubble around the pool kept getting bigger. The clouds parted, a nigh-full Moon and a sky full of stars illuminated the lot on which Koos Dijkstra was imprisoned.
He removed a piece of mortar stuck between tightly packed mud, and then there was a hole. He found the grate. Slowly he cleared up the holes, and the water began to drain away. Eventually, the pool was empty.
The grate was embedded in solid concrete, and there was nothing that Koos could do about that. Removing the grate to get in the sewers would be troublesome. The iron had been placed in the concrete while it was still wet, meaning he’d either have to break the damn stuff open, or somehow bend the bars of it. Now was time to see what the cane could do.
Koos ran his hands along the shaft of it, checking it for possible weaknesses. It was actually so well enforced that it might not break. There was some kind of mechanism near the handle, too…
A click, and then the engravings suddenly became… loose and began to revolve.
“Huh” Koos said, thinking it novel but unnecessary. What was the point of this?
Another click and the engravings locked in place. It almost looked like writing now. Wait, not almost. It WAS writing.
“To: Koos Dijkstra” it said. What a lark. The Devil was messing with him. Why give him such a cane? To mock him? He kept reading anyway.
“From: Daniel Smith, Magus Par Excellence”
Wait, what? Had this been the wizard’s cane?
“Phenomenal Power Be Found In This Dapper Cane.”
And that’s all it said. Koos tried the mechanism again, and the engravings whirred back into their original position.
“A magic staff?” he said, licking his lips and staring at the thing with bug-eyes. Hope is kindled. Koos jumped and tapped his naked heels together. Magic! How about that!
“Fireball!” he shouted as he swung the stick and pointed. Nothing happened. No fire, no smoke, no heat, no magic tingle.
It was worth the shot, though. With a shrug he returned to his original plan of using the cane as a crowbar and bend the bars of the grate open.
Whoever had designed the grate, they had not taken into account the fact that rust existed. Supposing that the thing had been put in place almost a century and a half ago, it was to be expected it wasn’t very sturdy. Koos could feel it give in when he stuck the cane in and tried to leverage it. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the strength left to do much, and the grate remained in place. With a disappointed sigh he climbed out of the hole and decided to call it a night. Sleep was what he needed now. In the morning he’d be able to get in the sewer. Yes. In the morning.
His clothes were still damp and cold against his skin when he put them on, but it was better than nudity now that he was done working. As for where he’d sleep, well…
It occurred to him he could build a shelter of all the rubble and bricks he’d found. He’d been so into the idea of getting down into the sewers that it hadn’t occurred to him before, but there was enough here for him to actually get some protection, a space where his body heat wouldn’t just escape into the four winds. With another sigh he began to pick up the bigger pieces of brick he’d fished out from the pool and pile them atop one another, letting them rest against the ruin he’d used as a clothe stand.
In the end he’d managed a sort of thing where he could get in hugging his knees. Not big enough to lie down in, but the smaller it was, the less it would take to warm it up. He left open just one side, enough to fit himself in the shelter, and threw his rain cloak over it this hole. It was dark, damp, cold, miserable, and he was shivering more than before.
He still fell asleep quickly.
Koos woke up to find light shining into his shelter. With a yawn he emerged, draping his cloak on. His joints were creaky and his muscles ached. He was starving. There was a basket on the ground, covered with cloth. It didn’t register with him at first, but after some staring, he realized that there was something very, very wrong here. Where had that come from? A trick by the Devil, perhaps? Filled with snakes and scorpions and spiders, probably.
He poked at it with his cane. There was no movement. He lifted the cloth off carefully with his cane, and discovered the basket to contain a loaf of bread, a bottle of what looked like milk, two apples and a box matches. Matches?
Looking around he also spied a bundle of firewood, neatly chopped and arranged into a pile next to his shelter. What was all this? Work of the Devil, no doubt. Something wicked about it. No matter what, he couldn’t believe there was anything good about this. It was all a set-up. The milk was probably jizz, the bread filled with razorblades, the matches all used and the apples full of worms. The apples looked invitingly red, though.
Hunger won caution and he grabbed one. He inspected it on the surface, squeezed it as if it were the breast of a Holstaurus, and then bit into it.
It was the most delicious apple he’d had in ages. He ate it all, core included. Then he ripped off a sizable chunk of the bread – the fresh scent of it! – and bit into that while struggling to open the bottle of milk, from which he gulped down enough to turn the bread in his mouth into a porridge-like mush.
“Haaahhh!” he sighed after finishing his drink. That really hit the spot.
Koos looked up to the sky and saw only small white clouds drifting gently, no sign of another rain any time soon. Might as well see about starting a fire, then.
The chopped up wood was moist on the outside but seemed dry enough for use. He didn’t have any tools to chop it into smaller bits than it already was in, so it posed a problem getting the fire started. Not like there was any kindling to be had. After going through half his matches he finally got a smoky, weak fire going, and then tried to let his clothes dry.
These things hadn’t come from nowhere. It wasn’t in the Devil’s interests to help him, either. But then who? The neighbours? There didn’t seem to be any. And wouldn’t a helper have woken him up or waited for him to wake up?
Thinking about it wasn’t going to solve anything, of course. Only thing to do now was ration the stuff. He could just gobble it all down now, but he might get much, much hungrier later on. He’d just need to last this whole day and until the evening of the next, and then he’d be done. Whatever would happen then would happen. Nothing he could do about it by fretting now.
Koos stretched a bit and found he was indeed quite sore. It might be a pain to get into the sewers. Did he really need to do that? If he used the mud as a kind of mortar, he could fill in the holes in the shelter’s walls and ceiling, make it waterproof.
Like hell he could. Damn mud would just drip all over him come next rain. Still, provided it didn’t rain…
After some consideration Koos opted to do the light work of patching up his makeshift hut rather than putting in the hard efforts of breaking through the grate. Feeling quite satisfied with himself he started looking for clay rather than simple mud, in the hopes it would work better. He found none, and made do with the mud. Never in his life had he thought he’d live in a mudhut. That was a downright Amazonian way of life, quite unbecoming of a gentleman of leisure such as he was. Still, no use complaining.
The fire wasn’t ravenous enough to his tastes, and he wasn’t getting dried up at the rate he’d hoped. Koos placed his cane in the ground and hung up his socks on it. At least he’d have moderately dry feet in a while.
“HOW?” came an angry shout then. Recognizing the Devil’s voice, Koos hid the basket in the hut.
“Why, my dear, how kind of you to visit!” Koos shouted, tipping his hat. Annoying a Devil might be a foolish thing to do, but if he was not a foolish man, he’d never have ended up here in the first place.
“Where did you get these things? You didn’t leave the lot, I’d know if you did!” she snapped at him, marching with great determination in his direction. By some gall Koos managed to keep his cool and not panic. The hulking shadowy man was following close on her heels, his theoretical face still covered in shadows produced by absolutely nothing.
“Who? Who helped you?” she demanded, standing on the other side of his fire.
Koos shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. I was asleep, missie” he explained. “Maybe I have a guardian Angel?”
The Devil bit her lip at this. Then she kicked his fire apart.
“There! Hah!” she said, turned around on her heels and marched off, her companion trailing close by without any reaction to the silliness that just occurred.
Once the Devil had left, Koos wished he’d had tobacco on him. Lacking this, he ate more bread and took a couple of sips of milk, staring at the still burning logs that were now separated. With a shrug he used his cane to bring them back together and put his socks and shoes back on. The Devil’s visit today had given him some ideas.
Firstly, she knew if he left the lot. This was some fiendish magic, no doubt. He couldn’t fight that. But he had also learned that she didn’t know if someone else crossed the lot’s borders. That offered up some interesting ideas. It meant she was not omniscient. It meant that, if it came to that, he might be able to escape her. The Tanuki had drawn his blood with a needle and had the magic to track him, but what did the Devil have? The contract had his blood, sure. But what if she could only keep track of him as long as he was on the lot? If she couldn’t keep track of others coming and going, could it be her power was limited by the contract?
It was definitely possible. Devils and Demons had been tricked in the past by using the deals made with them against them. Of course the contracts were made so as to screw over the people and not the Hellspawn, but if the heroes of the tales told had not been men of means like Koos Dijkstra, then what had they been like?
With new determination he returned to the bottom of the hole with the cane, intending to pry open the grate once and for all.
It must’ve been hours since he’d started. The Sun had certainly moved across the sky a great deal. Koos coughed a bit and wiped his forehead. He’d certainly bent the grate. There were large dents in the bars. Some were now stuck to each other at the middle, others bent as far away from each other as possible. He was no closer to breaking the iron free from the concrete than he’d been when he started. There simply wasn’t enough leverage to perform such a feat. Best he could hope to do was use the cane as a pickaxe and pick away at the concrete. That would require considerable strength. He might be able to yet muster it. Whether the cane would hold was a different mater. To be fair, it had yet to show any signs of wear and tear. It didn’t bend or creak at all when he used it to pry on the bars, so it could be the cane had some magic in it after all. Whatever that magic was, it hadn’t rubbed off on him. Eugh, working this hard was against Koos’ habits. He was no labourer, he was a natural executive.
Koos climbed out of the hole for a break, and found his fire had gone out. Feeling furious at this, he tore apart the basket he’d gotten the food in and used it for kindling to star a proper one. With a happily crackling fire going, he ate the other apple and began to survey the land around him. Whoever had made the delivery of the basket, provided that a guardian Angel hadn’t been at work here, would have to have come from one of the houses around here. But the ones beyond the wall couldn’t see him; the ones behind the park couldn’t see him, that left… the empty house. But that surely wasn’t it, was it? Nobody lived there.
Unless they were hiding.
But why would they help him then?
Koos got up and walked to the fence that separated his lot from the manor grounds. There was no light in the windows, no smoke in the chimneys, of which there were two. Of course during the day it was unlikely for any light to shine from there, but still. The place didn’t look very lived-in. The garden was all untended as well. Not like whoever had helped him had come from there.
Something occurred to him. The ground was all soft and muddy, wasn’t it? So he should be able to find footprints. Hah! That’s the thing, wasn’t it? If there were none, he could chalk it up to an Angel or something. If there were footprints, he could maybe ascertain something of his unseen ally.
The search began in the most logical place, the spots where the basket and logs had been left in the night.
Koos found footprints he’d failed to notice in the morning. One set, very small. Like a child’s. High heels, so probably a woman. A little girl, then. Using the skills he’d learned from reading a pulp fiction about a Wendigo tracker he found proof of other things as well. The girl wore a skirt with long hems, and had a tail. A thin tail. Ah, so it might not be a little girl then, but a Maus.
The image of a little Maus carrying that basket and all those logs on her own seemed downright ridiculous though. How could such a little thing be so strong?
He followed the tracks to the fence, and discovered that the little helper had snuck in through the fence. The gap was far too small for the basket and logs to fit through, though. She must’ve climbed over it.
He looked up and saw the menacing spikes. Quite a courageous girl, this Maus. And athletic. He would need to keep his eyes open tonight. If she showed up, he could try chatting her up, see about preparing an escape route for when his time on the lot came to a close and he could actually leave.
But why was she helping him in the first place? Out of the kindness of her heart? While hiding in a house that was supposedly empty? She must’ve had an agenda. She must’ve known he was more than just a simple vagabond. Hell, she might have known what went on here while Daniel Smith still lived!
Koos found the milk was running low already. He’d need to save it up in case the Maus didn’t show up tonight. It was still early. Well, early afternoon, in any case. Or was it? Who knows? The Sun was… was that the East or the West?
Shaking his head Koos headed to the grate to finally attempt using the cane as a pickaxe. Remembering what he’d learned from drunk Dwarves he lifted it high above his head and shouted “Hi-ho!” swinging it down with all his might at the second syllable.
The cane bounced back from where it had hit, leaving only a small chip in the concrete by the grate, while his palms, wrists, elbows and shoulders all felt the pain of the impact hard enough to make him loosen his grip, sending the cane flying. No labourer was he, indeed.